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Authors: Andrei Codrescu

Wakefield

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Wakefield

A Novel

Andrei Codrescu

Imagination, in the proper meaning of the term,

made no part of Wakefield's gifts.

—N
ATHANIEL
H
AWTHORNE
, “Wakefield,” 1835

PROLOGUE

Late in the Twentieth Century

One day the Devil shows up. “I've come to take you.”

“I'm not ready,” says Wakefield.

“Why not? You don't have any reason to live.”

Wakefield is scandalized. “Are you crazy? What kind of a thing is that to say to a man in the prime of life?”

“You're a failure. Time to die.” The Devil is bored. He has this argument what, six, seven times a day? Nobody welcomes death. They are ready for it, they need it, but when it comes right down to it, they won't go.

“What do you mean, a failure? I'm quite well respected.”

“Awright,” sighs Satanik, “I'll play the game. Why do you want to stay? Worried about the people you'd leave behind?”

“I have no interest in people,” Wakefield pronounces haughtily, drawing himself up and looking down on the thinning fur between the horns of the Unholy One, who's actually fairly short. “I just want to be left alone.” He tries to slam the door in the Devil's face, but the Devil's got a hoof in it.

“Okay, so you're a loner. No loved ones, no next of kin, no pets. Nothing to live for but a few bad habits.”

“That's not what I said. I've got lots of friends.” Wakefield sounds doubtful. “My daughter Margot would probably be very upset.…”

The Devil sees an easy shot and takes it. “Don't kid yourself, buddy. You haven't seen your daughter in years, we both know that. Tell the truth, what's the real reason you want to stick around?” The bit about the daughter is unfair. He talks to Margot on the phone every two weeks. He's not a model father, but he's no deadbeat.

“Well, actually, there's some reading I'd like to do,” Wakefield improvises, gesturing to the crammed bookshelves that line the walls of his garret.

That's a real thigh-slapper. “You can read when you're disembodied, nothing to stop you, but I haven't got all day. You've read enough already to know how it works.”

Wakefield does know how it works, in books. You keep the conversation going. Keep the Devil talking until you find a way out.

“It's like this. I honestly wasn't expecting to see you. Couldn't you give me another chance?” Wakefield puts on his most sincere expression. “I've had this feeling for a while, you know, like I went wrong somewhere, like maybe I should have lived a different life.”


O sole mio!
I hate the bookish ones. It ain't like reincarnation, friend. I don't know anyone who thinks they've lived the right life, they all think it's been some kind of dream. I have only one question: do you believe in me?”

This is important to the Diablo. He's obligated by an ancient professional code to give believers another chance. Unbelievers he just scoops up and closes the book. If you don't like it, contest it in court. The afterlife is one long hearing.

“Oh, I believe in you, don't get me wrong. I read somewhere that there is a black hole at the center of the universe, some kind of super-massive gravity not even light can escape from. That's you, right?”

“Sure, that's me. There are a lot of us, actually.”

“So don't you have to give me another chance, if I believe?”

El Malefico rolls his eyes at the stars, where his dark-bearded masters sit around the fire eating the souls he's brought them.

“Don't tell me, you got that from a book, too.”

“Yeah, well. What do you say? Can't we make some special arrangement? I'm not the most demanding of men, to quote Frank O'Hara.”

The Devil's lower back is beginning to bother him, standing in a drafty doorway like this. “You think I could sit down for a minute, pal? I'm under no obligation, you understand, but we could, perhaps, discuss your request.”

That's more like it, thinks Wakefield, ushering in his guest. “Maybe I could get you a drink? I know I could use one. What'll it be?”

“Scotch,” grunts the Devil, easing himself into a plump leather armchair.

The cell phone in Wakefield's pocket has been vibrating at intervals throughout this unusual encounter. While he prepares the drinks, he listens to his messages. There's one from his lecture agent, urging him to take a gig for half his usual fee; his friend Ivan (his only friend), inviting him to a poker game; his broker, trying to sell him shares in a new IPO; and his ex-wife, Marianna, who wants to talk about their daughter. Wakefield pours his own drink extra deep.

The Devil, meanwhile, is checking out Wakefield's digs. The guy's got good taste for a schmo, he thinks, admiring the Murano chandelier, the faded kilims, the three fake netsuke in pornographic poses on the mantelpiece, next to a few family photos: a woman with bouffant, a man in Sunday suit, a boy with baseball bat. Bought at the flea market, like most families these days. He's got a soft spot for fakes. The Devil himself has a collection of family photos from the offices of middle-aged men he's collected at their desks. He had taken the men first; then, for his own pleasure, their family pictures. Invariably, these turned out to be fakes, props, simulacra of real families, which is what made them desirable in his world, where value is based entirely on the differential between the fake and the genuine. The bigger the lie, the greater the value. The phony photos left no doubt he'd scooped up the right souls.

“I think you'll enjoy this whiskey,” says Wakefield, returning with their drinks. “It's a single malt, a gift from one of my fans.” He takes a seat opposite the Dark One, who sips the scotch and nods his approval.

“I haven't been the best host, have I,” Wakefield goes on, “just talking about myself, what I want, and so on. What about you? It can't be easy, wandering the earth, always on call—” Wakefield's phone vibrates again, and the buzz is audible in the quiet room.

“Turn that damned thing off, will you? Noise drives me crazy,” the Devil growls, swallowing the rest of his whiskey in one gulp.

“You're the one with supernatural powers, you turn it off,” blurts Wakefield, forgetting his manners.

“I'm sorry to disappoint you,” the Devil says apologetically, “but I have no power over cell phones, computers, cable TV, satellite communications, or microwaves. No, it's true, really. Things used to be more simple, more fun. I enjoyed a frivolous and pleasant existence as a beloved, comic, quasifictional character. It was great—classic literature, opera, ballet …” He sighs deeply, then leans closer to Wakefield.

“Then one year I went from being revived at the Bolshoi to being deified by Khomeini and Falwell. Since then it's been a mess. A bunch of religious freaks spouting tacky rhetoric, demanding apocalypse-size work. I don't want to play World Ender for these lunatics. I was looking forward to a lighter quota, maybe some R & R in the arms of a kinkishly altered soprano. And now you're giving me shit?”

Wakefield is astonished by this outpouring. Who knew the Devil had such middle-age problems? Poor old Pan, weeping in his mossy cave as the blinding light of a neon cross invades his darkness and his joy. Wakefield, too, regrets the passing of the pagan era, and could almost hug the Old Goat, but he's got a deal to make.

“How would you like an opportunity to cut down your workload and postpone some of that heavy eschatological lifting? Give me a chance to find my true life. If I succeed—and you'll be the judge of that, of course—I get to go on living. If I fail … well, you do what you have to do. It would be a hell of a lot more relaxing than smiting and scourging on a massive scale.”

The Devil is tempted. In his profession, gambling is the only way to pass eternity, which just doesn't pass and is subject to multiple interpretations and migraines.

“How long do you figure this business will take?” the Dark One asks, putting his hooves up on the low table.

“Oh, I don't know.…” Wakefield pretends to calculate. “A year, maybe. Two years, max.”

The Devil is toying with his empty whiskey glass. Wakefield fetches the bottle from the kitchen and pours them another stiff one.

“It would have to involve some travel, you know. You can't just stay in this apartment and luxuriate. Nice place, by the way.”

“No problem,” Wakefield hastily agrees, “I travel a lot in any case.” The sucker's going for it, he congratulates himself.

The Devil falls silent, savoring the second whiskey. He closes his tired yellow eyes, and for a moment Wakefield imagines he's asleep, until he grunts and his eyes flutter open.

“And you'd have to bring me something from every place you go.”

“Bring you something? Like what, a souvenir, something valuable, some kind of sacrifice?” He's trying to be cooperative.

“Can't say, really. Something you think I'd like. Could be anything.”

“Are you sure you don't want something more abstract? Isn't it customary to take my soul in this kind of exchange? That's how it works in
Faust, The Master and Margarita
, all the classic texts.”

“Give me a break!” the Devil groans. “I'm drowning in souls. It's a buyer's market. Look out that window and see for yourself?”

A line of young women stretches out of sight down the sidewalk. Wakefield knows what they're waiting for. A famous director is shooting a movie in his neighborhood, and the girls are there to audition. The director has already cast the role; the audition is just a way for the old guy to get some nookie. Wakefield sees the Devil's point.

“So you really don't want my soul?”

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